Cycling in Ireland: Female cyclists don’t feel safe on our roads

Published by Laura Matjusaityte on

July 10th, 2018

The Irish capital has seen a positive change in commuter behaviour in recent years away from the internal combustion engine to more active modes of transport, namely cycling.

The latest figures show that the number of people cycling to work in Dublin saw a sharp rise of 43 per cent between 2011 and 2016. Unfortunately, however, this has coincided with an increase in the number of fatalities on Irish roads.

In 2017, 15 cyclists- up 50 per cent from 2016 – were killed, the highest number of cycling deaths recorded in a calendar year since 2007.

The Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, TD, has said that one fatal road tragedy is “one too many” and has offered “active support” for cyclists.

Despite the Minster’s words, cyclists, and female cyclists, in particular, are hesitant to hit the peddles and tackle Irish roads, especially in the city centre.

According to figures from the Department of Transport, only one in four Irish cyclists is female, with several women sitting down with The Green News to discuss the road safety issues that keep them off the saddle.

“I do find that at times I’m more vulnerable as a female cyclist” Photo: Vanessa Sterry

Intimidating drivers and unsafe roads

“I do find that at times I’m more vulnerable as a female cyclist,” says Vanessa Sterry, who cycles around 30km every day in Dublin, finding some male drivers “inherently misogynistic” towards female cyclists.

“Put a female on the bicycle towards them on ‘their’ roads and it’s the potential for a disaster,” she says, which often makes cycling “not a pleasant experience”.

She told The Green News that over the past 10 years she has been knocked down in a hit and run twice, been intimidated and even threatened by drivers.

Published yesterday, the Road Safety Authority (RSA)’s provisional review of road fatalities shows that six cyclists have been killed on Irish roads in the first half of 2018.

Commenting on the review, the Authority’s CEO, Moyagh Murdock, said that “simple changes in behaviour” such as wearing high visibility clothing “can help to save lives”.

In Sterry’s experience, however, cycling with a helmet and hi-viz jacket has often invoked “unwarranted road aggression”. She said that she feels that drivers see her “more as a person on the bike and take less risk” when she wears her regular clothes.

“As a person who cycles you’re literally putting yourself in danger every day,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. You’re sharing the road with people who are stuck in their phones, drunk, speeding or terrible drivers who don’t actually know the rules of the road.”

Cyclist and racer, Jennifer Neenan Photo: Sean Rowe

Staying Alive at 1.5

According to 19-year-old cyclist and racer, Jennifer Neenan, conditions have improved “a bit” following the Staying Alive at 1.5 campaign.

The campaign advised drivers to keep a safe 1.5 metre distance when passing a cyclist and led to the introduction of the Minimum Passing Distance for Cyclists Bill 2017.

The Bill states that it is illegal for drivers to pass a cyclist with less than a 1.5 metre distance where the speed limit is 50 km/h or higher. Any driver in breach is subject to fines and penalty points.

It is extremely hard, however, to prove that the safe distance is kept, making the legislation difficult to enforce. This means that cyclist safety is still a huge issue, Neenan says.

“Sometimes drivers almost see us as the targets,” she told The Green News, and is not surprised that there are less female cyclists on the roads because of this problem.

“I am quite experienced so I can manage it, but for beginners, it would definitely put them off,” she says, admitting that she herself “wouldn’t chance cycling into the city centre”.

Segregated lanes needed

Thirty-year-old  Lotta Mikkonen says that she still doesn’t feel safe on Irish roads despite having five years of cycling experience in Dublin under her belt.

Much like Sterry and Neenan, the “lack of dedicated infrastructures” and driver behaviour are the key issues at play for Mikkonen who feels “ignored” by drivers.

“No matter how clearly I indicate my intention to move into the next lane I get ignored and cannot safely make the required manoeuvre,” she says. “No matter how bright my lights or clothing are driver pretend not to see me.”

She often has to “dodge potholes and poor road surface” while cycling and drivers don’t make it easier by driving too close to her, she adds.

Ms Mikkonen believes that good quality segregated cycle infrastructure would help improve the situation, telling The Green News that she feels safer since a recent move to Blanchardstown which has separate lanes.

“It makes it far less stressful to hop on the bike to pop down to the shops, compared to having to compete with cars for road space,” she says.

The Department of Transport told The Green News that over €110 million has been set aside for spending on cycling and walking infrastructure in the Greater Dublin Area and regional cities over the next four years.

The re-jigging of the city centre bus network will include the construction of new segregated cycling lanes alongside bus routes, a Department spokesperson added.

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Laura Matjusaityte

Laura is a first-year journalism student at DIT. She has an interest in the environment, veganism and literature.